KONCHALOVSKY – SIBERIADE – 1979
This film is probably a master
piece. To summarize the history of Russia
and the Soviet Union
in some four odd hours is
in itself a miracle. But what’s more it concentrates on Siberia and it follows
one little village, Elan, in this region, and in this village essentially three
generations of the Ustyuzhanin
family, in fact Afanasi, the grand father, then Nikolai the father and Aleksei
the son, as opposed to the other family in the village, the Solomins. The first
family are the poor ones, the underlings before the revolution, the others are
the top family. The revolution of course transforms these relations and we
follow the lives of these three men essentially in their village, when they are
there since they are often rejected, or they just go away, and then they come
Afanasi is the only one who does not come back. He is always
there and lives alone with his son and no wife.
Nikolai comes back as a Soviet officer, a Communist cadre and
it is dramatic because he had been thrown away at the beginning of the
revolution and his paramour, from the other family, had escaped from the
village to find him and follow him. It will be a difficult situation since she
will be burned to death by the white Cossacks during the civil war after the
revolution. He comes back with his young son in the 1930s and is killed by the
other paramour of his wife, the one she left behind.
Aleksei is sent to an orphanage, then on one visit to the
village and his relatives a recruiting unit at the very beginning of the war
against Nazi Germany accepts his enlisting, though he is slightly too young,
and he will be a hero in the war, saving his captain all by himself. But in the
1960s he comes back as a master driller to drill for oil in his village because
he knows there is some: he discovered it with his father when he was a kid when
they marched into the marsh known as the Devil’s Mane and there oil was oozing
out all over the place and they managed to set it on fire, accidently. Aleksei
though wants to leave after a while, with the woman he had taught how to dance
when just under 18 before he enlisted, and it is when he finally can go and is
going to go, alone because the woman refuses to follow him, he goes say goodbye
to his drilling mates and it is then oil is struck and starts bursting out. But
it gets on fire for some unimportant reason and the derrick falls and traps one
man. All the others go and Nikolai manages the situation to save that man, but Nikolai
is caught by the fire and dies.
But the film is a lot more important than that. It is a real
film about history. You cannot force history to do something it does not want
to do because you have to work with people and people do not necessarily want
to change and you have to convince them. It may take three generations to move
from the superstition about the Devil’s Mane to the acceptance that the village
is going to be completely transformed by that oil, and the most dramatic war
possible in the meantime after a very dramatic and heroic revolution.
The film then shows how at the beginning of this political
revolution Nikolai was naïve and thought it was easy to make people do what
they did not want to do, and he is killed just because his rival in love
refuses to follow him and kills him. It fails because of some private business
and affair, a love story that had not gone the way one of the lovers wanted. Trite,
and yet history is also the result of such capricious and unpredictable
elements. It will take thirty years and one generation for what was then
possible in the 1930s to become a reality in the 1960s.
And in the 1960s we are no longer speaking of that kind of
romantic revolution Nikolai had in mind. Aleksei and the other oil drillers around
him are confronted to the stubborn desire of the central authorities in Moscow to develop the country and to decide in Moscow what is best for everyone and the small village and
the country around is going to become the largest man-made sea with the largest
hydroelectric dam and factory on the Volga. It
is a pure miracle that makes oil burst out of its underground lair on the very
same day, killing Aleksei, as the central committee of the Communist Party or
some other bureaucratic authority like this one is meeting to take a decision
in favor of the dam. The events stop the dam project in its shoes and in its trail.
Unluckily, and Konchalovsky knew all about it in 1979, that was the last moment
when history was right against the bureaucrats. After that the USSR entered a very dark time when bureaucracy
was the only possible authority and initiative from people was discouraged and
even choked, and stagnation started, leading finally to regression and the fall
of the USSR.
We feel that end the director could not know under the open discourse about the
heroism of this Aleksei.
The last but one thing about the film that has to be said is
that the director chose to always look at historical events through the
intimate eyes of one character or another, mainly the Ustyuzhanin
truth is in the eyes of the beholders and not in the brains of the leaders. The
death of Lenin is actually shown, but the death of Stalin is not and when the
older Aleksei revisits as a dream his visit as a child of the Devil’s Mane with
his father, he gets inside a small hut that had been used by some hypothetical drillers.
Aleksei is dreaming of course at this moment and he gets afraid and starts
calling his father, as he had done when a child, and to get out of the hut he
has to tear up a portrait of Stalin. This scene is of course very symbolical,
especially since in the next minute he sinks in some quicksand and drowns,
another symbolical act in that dream of his.
The last element I would like to emphasize is the way the
director plays on the fake black and white (always in a shade that is not
black, sepia or green, etc) to have archives images of some historical moments,
Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd, his funeral, and later on Gagarin, for example.
At the same time the same fake black and white sequences are used to bring the
wishes, the dreams, the recollections of the characters. The real time of each
episode is in full colors. That gives a real density to the film as if we
constantly had a film in the film with flashbacks and at times flash-forwards into
the future (rarely) and into dreams (more often).
I must reckon it is not easy to find that film in DVD. I got
edition in NTSC in Russian with English subtitles. But it was worth it.